“The Heart of Culture” traces the success of Western education, rooted in the very nature of Western civilization as a historical “clash and combination” of Greek culture and Judeo-Christian religion. It is the perfect book for parents, teachers, and administrators who are dissatisfied with modern education but don’t know why.

The Heart of Culture: A Brief History of Western Education, by Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership (128 pages, Cluny Media, 2020)

In a way, it is not surprising that educators have latched on to the false gospels of gender and critical race theories. Education since the Progressive era has been largely conceived of by the theorists, educrats, school counselors, and far too many teachers as a kind of revolutionary liberation of children from the false strictures of family, church, and the past (natural law, human nature, and other heresies) in order that those children can take their place in a democratic society in which educated people obey those whose “scientific” expertise about society will bring us to utopia. The problem is that after a while, immanentizing the eschaton via scientistic bureaucrats seems not only ridiculous but also boring. Better living through procedure doesn’t provide the horizon of possibility that man, in whose heart eternity has been placed, sees as his destiny.

The newer theories provide hyped-up versions of original sin and guilt (racism! transphobia!) that can be confessed when one comes to the altar of wokeness. Of course, absolution is not really a thing—one’s sins and tweets are not washed away but saved up in order to destroy you if you get out of line. But for those who have been allowed to leave the great politically correct unwashed temporarily, there are delights: the delicious taste of moral and spiritual superiority along with the license to cancel and perhaps destroy other infidels.

I confess I’m sympathetic to both old-fashioned progressives and the new woke tyrants, however. Too many people, conservative and otherwise, restrict their criticisms of modern education to the observation that it doesn’t teach much of the readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. But education in the Western tradition has always been a substantive thing well beyond simply skills—it hands on culture to the next generation. Supposedly neutral, scientific Deweyite education always had assumptions that formed a shadow curriculum of theological and anthropological ideas to be passed on. Wokeness repeats halfheartedly the boast of being “scientific,” but mostly drops the pretense of neutrality and declares its dogmas openly. They may be incoherent, unfair, and often inhuman, but by providing these alternative accounts of the world, today’s woke progressive educators bring the incoherence of modern education at all levels to the fore and demand of us, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.”

For many people, the desire to go-along-to-matriculate will be overwhelming. Like the Jewish mother critiquing the restaurant down the street in an old joke, they will declare concerning the education they and their children receive, “It’s terrible—and such small portions!” Others will start to ask what precisely is terrible about what they’re being handed and whether they should want any portions. They will want to know what it was that made Western education—and thus Western culture—so dynamic in arts, letters, and sciences for so long. For those people who have looked at some old books and been “read pilled” concerning education, The Heart of Culture: A Brief History of Western Education is the perfect thing to read and to give to the parents, teachers, and administrators in your life who are dissatisfied but don’t know why. Especially to those who work in Catholic or Christian schools and can do something about education.

A brief disclaimer of non-neutrality on my part. This little 130-page book was composed by colleagues of mine at the Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership, one of the institutes at the University of St. Thomas’s Center for Catholic Studies where I work. But I do not think I am being partial when I say that I think it very good—such that I wish they had asked me to help out with it.

Based on a course by my former colleague Fr. Michael Keating and currently taught by Michael Naughton, The Heart of Culture traces how Western education came to be the envy of the world. Its success is rooted in the very nature of Western civilization as a historical “clash and combination of these two universal ideals, Greek philosophical culture and Jewish-Christian religion.” This fusion was, as the verbs foretell, not always easy. It did, however, produce “a remarkable dynamism” accompanied by a “precarious fragility.”

The dynamism was created by the universality of the claims on both sides. The Greek philosophical culture, with its emphasis on the rationality of humans and the centrality of words in our knowledge (both designated by Isocrates’s term logos), managed to make its own combination of the Platonic emphasis on the search for the true, the good, and the beautiful, as well as the emphasis of the Sophists on the rhetorical skills needed to run the city. This culture included a demand for moral development, the training of the physical body, and knowledge of the truths of mathematics that underlay the Greek understanding of beauty as proportion and balance. The term that captures this Greek ideal was paideia.

Many people think Greek culture was problematic because of racial considerations, but the Greeks understood their own culture in universalist terms—what made one “Greek” ultimately was education and philosophy, not skin color or nationality. The real difficulty with this Greek culture from the Jewish and Christian perspectives was its intertwinement with a religious world of gods and goddesses that often had little to do with either rationality or morality. Jews and Christians adapted what was true in the Greek world by giving it a new religious context, one in which rationality and morality were seen as reflections and indeed a participation in the nature of the one God who is both truth and goodness. This integration of Greek paideia and Christian (sometimes Jewish) faith was accomplished first and elegantly in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. by the great fathers of the Church, who themselves operated in different places throughout North Africa, Greece, and all over the Roman Empire. Like those of the Greeks themselves, Christian understandings of identity were universal. Baptismal water was considered thicker than blood and the mind of Christ more important than the ethnicity of the one who had it. Western civilization, like its Greek and Christian roots, has always been universal in intent.

Yet time passed and the world of the Empire in which the first combinations of paideia and faith were forged disappeared. Amid the rubble of late antiquity, monks (not just the Irish, as Thomas Cahill had it) saved and developed Western civilization with their schools and libraries in hopes of a better day. Their work was aided by bishops whose cathedrals also came to be centers of learning. The dream was of a society fully animated by this vision. That dream was partly accomplished under Charlemagne, but the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, the authors note, “was notable more for its aspirations than for what it was able to accomplish.” It was for the medieval universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to bring about both a new and a powerful combination of learning and faith, one to which many religious believers look back with fondness, if not always a knowledge of how fragile that accomplishment was.

The fourteenth century saw a breakdown of society brought on by plague, ecclesial disarray in the form of the Papal schism, and the battles between France and England for supremacy in Western Europe. The chapter on Renaissance humanism notes that the affair too many think of as a break from the medieval past was really less a rupture than a reconnection with and reconfiguration of certain elements of the past in order to deal with the breakdown. It was done by means of a return ad fontes, to the sources, of both Christian and classical roots. As in all ages it was a matter of tension, but it was a creative tension. Though some Renaissance figures turned purely to the Greek side of things, characteristic figures such as Ignatius of Loyola were instrumental in establishing an educational world in which faith and reason operated. The real rupture, our authors believe, came with the period of time we call “the Enlightenment.”

Given that this is a short book, it is perhaps unfair to demand too much in the way of detail, but it would have been better if this chapter had at least alluded to the reality that the Enlightenment itself had a great many Christian enlighteners, as the work of historian Ulrich Lehner has shown. But I suppose it is fair to say that if the Renaissance ended with figures such as Ignatius setting the tone for the age, then the end of the Enlightenment was a secular one in which rationalism and romanticism fought for control, but could find no integration since Christ was largely banished from the public thought of society.

Chapter eight sketches four characteristic educational reformers (LaSalle, Pestalozzi, Rousseau, and Newman) of the modern age to show how they did or did not practically integrate the new technical knowledge with a true understanding of humans, made in the image of God as they are. While Newman gets the last word in the chapter, it is pretty clear that we are still suffering under the misapprehensions of those like Rousseau, who paved the way for Progressives such as John Dewey, the subject of chapter nine. Even if there are a lot of “Newman Centers” at universities, Dewey’s utopian and pseudoscientific vision won out, leading to the conundrum this review started with—a world in which education, especially at the university level, is now incoherent and weak, vulnerable to a take-over by the new woke Progressives. The authors are admirably frank about the fact that Catholic and Protestant colleges are part of this collapse because they largely sought out prestige after World War II rather than pursuing a new attempt at the clash and combination of universal knowledge. The resulting incoherence made them easy targets for today’s ideologues.

If Rousseau won his “round,” Newman is still in the fight. The last chapter appeals to Newman’s timeless iteration of the components of education in both The Idea of a University and his less well-known Rise and Progress of Universities, which puts flesh on the frame presented in the former book. Newman understands that the world of the university, with its professors and departments, really only bears fruit for students if it lives in smaller units that are dedicated to teaching and personal, spiritual formation that integrates the learning.

How this can happen in the world of the secularized and credential-oriented “multiversity” is a good question. Michael Naughton, in his foreword, and Jonathan Reyes of the Knights of Columbus, in his afterword, both offer words of encouragement to those engaged in the task of education. Dr. Reyes notes that this book does not provide practical and structural solutions to renew education; instead, it provides the principles for how this would happen. Professor Naughton, with whom I work, observes that the Catholic Studies program in which we teach is itself an example of a program “seeking a rediscovery of the educational tradition in the West.” There are other creative programs such as Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox campus ministries and study programs that are seeking to provide both the integrating knowledge of Christ and the collegiate principle amid the denuded university world. These programs are providing the foundational elements of paideia and Judeo-Christian faith that would allow the renewed clash and combination to happen amid (even if not always within) the university world. May they be fruitful and multiply.

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The featured image is “A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts” (c. 1484) by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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